Friday, August 17, 2007

Does Your Summer Vacation Impact Indigenous Peoples?

Everyone loves summer vacations. Time is spent away from the office and with family and friends, hikes to the top of new mountains are done, new lands are explored, and the overall pleasure of doing something adventurous and exciting is accomplished. For many people, summer vacation is the only time that they get outside into the wild to reconnect with Mother Earth. The last thing that people want to do is wonder how their vacation is impacting indigenous peoples' lives. The mind would rather be somewhere else.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what most people don't realize is that their summer adventure rafting down a remote river in Costa Rica, seeing a herd of zebra in the Kalahari desert of Africa, or spoting an elusive Orangutan in Indonesia has a huge impact on indigenous peoples.

Now don't get me wrong, tourism has passed a number of milestones, from a growing sensibility worldwide with regard to animals and the environment to a trend toward sensitivity towards nature and culture. Despite these positive points, however, there is still too little attention to the impact tourism - and its accompanying conservation efforts - have had on indigenous peoples and their traditional lifeways.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the United States established large reserves of land that came to be National Parks. These parks, hailed by environmentalists, conservationists, and the like, were considered a model for other developing countries to follow concerning their unique natural resources. What was forgotten was that the land placed under the designation of a National Park (or some other label) used to be the traditional land of indigenous peoples - land that they depended on for hunting, fishing, gathering of plants, religious ceremonies, and much more (for a great book on the topic, check out Indian Country, God's Country: Native Americans and the National Parks).

Have you ever seen a Cheyenne or Arapahoe American Indian hunting elk in Rocky Mountain National Park? Are Maasai pastoralists allowed to herd their cattle through the Lake Bogoria Game Reserve in the Rift Valley of Kenya? Can the Dayak of Indonesia gather forest products in preserves set aside for Orangutans and other wildlife? The answer to these questions is a resounding NO!

The truth of the matter is that most places visited by people on summer vacations have had, and continue to have, a major impact on the lives of indigenous peoples. In order to provide those vacation seekers in Rocky Mountain National Park the perfect experience of elk bugeling in the fall, American Indian tribes have been denied their traditional hunting practices. To make sure that high-paying tourists see herds of zebra, Maasai pastoralists are not allowed to herd their cattle across most of their former homeland. The same goes for the eco-parks in Indonesia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, and almost everywhere else.

The irony of the matter is that these parks and preserves are established often to highlight a country's unique habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem, all of which have been shaped for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. It is called symbiosis, and it is an essential component of any ecosystem. When you displace indigenous peoples and their traditional lifeways, the ecosystem they were a part of is greatly disrupted. Now there are too many elk in Rocky Mountain National Park and the park service is going to have to kill many of them. Same goes for Africa, some preserves have been so successful that they have an over population of animals for the resources available.

What we need are not large parks and preserves where indigneous peoples' are not allowed to practice their traditional lifeways, but rather where they ARE allowed to continue their practices. Think how Rocky Mountain National Park would look if American Indians were allowed to hunt elk as they did for thousands of years? One would not see the fake "pristine wilderness" of today, but rather a wilderness at its best - active, dynamic, growing, dying, changing, living. If we add indigenous peoples and their traditions back into the mix, the parks and preserves of the world will become much healthier. They will become more "natural."

So, next time you are on summer vacation and you ask the tour operator, "where are the Maasai with their cattle" hopefully they will respond, "just over the hill," rather than "they are not allowed on their homeland anymore because most tourists do not want to see cattle or pastoralists in so-called wilderness."

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Venezuela and its Indigenous Peoples: Progress or Regression?

South America has had a very mixed record when dealing with its indigenous peoples. Chile, Argentina, and a few others have tended to place industrialization, natural resource extraction, and tourism development above the needs and concerns of the local indigenous peoples. This should not really be that surprising - it is what the U.S., Canada, Australia, and many other places did. However, Venezuela appears to be on a slightly different path.

Under the direction of Chavez, the Venezuelan government has been making some great strides in recognizing the rights of its indigenous peoples. For example, recently Venezuelan vice-president Jorge Rodriguez, together with Nicia Maldonado (the Minister of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples) handed over eleven housing and land titles recognizing indigenous ownership of land throughout the country. Similarly, the Venezuelan government plans on providing financial support for projects of integral development and housing for the indigenous communities of Pume, Yaruro, Karina and Warao - the indigenous peoples of the states of Apure, Anzoategui, and Bolivar.

This is a pretty good track record for Chavez and his government. We often don't hear about this because the U.S. media is overly saturated with stories influenced by the U.S. government's opposition to Chavez and his socialist agenda. Over the past eight years, however, the Venezuelan government has handed over nine-hundred thousand hectares of land titles to the indigenous peoples of various regions! That's over 2 million acres! Pretty good start for a government that the U.S. is trying to place on its "terrorist" list.

Venezuela is a huge country, with thousands of indigenous groups. Thus far 2,205 indigenous communities representing more than forty different groups have been identified. Out of these, 800 have been confirmed as part of the National Registrar of Indigenous Communal Councils, and 520 have received financing from the government for various development projects. The Indigenous Communal Councils is a body established within the Venezuelan government that I find very interesting. Unlike here in the States, in Venezuela the indigenous groups have come together to leverage their voice on a national and international level by acting as one unit. I suggested just such an idea earlier when I was talking about the Tsawwassen and Semiahmoo in British Columbia and the problems associated with overlapping land claims. Here is a model that allows the indigenous peoples of Venezuela to act as one unit when it comes to national or international issues that has a much larger voice then if they were to act on an individual, group basis. Furthermore, because this body works on communal power, traditional indigenous means of decision making, justice, and action can be incorporated.

So, perhaps Chavez and the Venezuelan government is as bad as the U.S. government leads us to believe (for an example of the U.S. government's manipulation of the situation, check out this Associated Press article. Or perhaps they are not. From what I can gather, Venezuela appears to be doing a better job with its indigenous peoples then Brazil right now. One is following its own path, the other is trying to become best friends with the U.S. You decide - all one has to do is look at where the money goes, which delegates get asked to the White House, and which country treats its indigenous peoples with the respect and dignity that all humans deserve.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Southern New England Native Americans Write Their Own History

I'm always excited when I find new books written by indigenous peoples about their own history. One area that has been lacking any publications is that of New England. Well, no longer. For the first time in the 400 year colonial history of the American Indians of southern New England have they written their own story. Covering all modes of their traditional life, A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England is a landmark publication.

Very few books on the history and culture of the southern New England indigenous peoples have been written by the Native themselves. Standard academic books read like a clinical autopsy of a dead culture from many years ago. Contrary to this, A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England provides an understanding of the ways, customs, and language of the southern New England American Indians from the Native’s perspective. Written and compiled by two Wampanoag Indians, the book incorporates voices of modern Elders and other Natives spanning the historic records of the 1500s and 1600s. As author Moondancer stressed, “everything about the beauty, power, and richness of our culture has been included.”

Sections of the book cover appearance, language, family and relations, religion, the body and senses, marriage, sickness, war, games, hunting, and much more. This book is one step in many by the Native peoples of southern New England as they reclaim their culture and identity. As Moondancer noted, “The proud and fiercely independent Native American peoples of southern New England once walked tall and proud on this land. With this book, we are now beginning to walk tall again.”

For more information visit: Bauu Press.

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